Hi Henriette. what do you do and what brought you to Asia?
I am the Principal Investigator of the ‘Design for Autonomous Mobility’ team at TUMCREATE, a research platform aiming at improving Singapore’s public transportation through the deployment of electric and autonomous vehicles. The program is funded by Singapore’s National Research Foundation as part of the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE).
My role is to supervise the team’s research activities, seek for new collaborations and integrate our findings in the overall research program. We focus especially on human factors, i.e., the interaction between the autonomous mobility system and the users. How will people communicate with the autonomous bus at crossing section? How can we increase the acceptability of such technology? How can we make sure this new technology is inclusive of all? (e.g., people with physical or cognitive disabilities) These are the questions we want to solve through empirical and theoretical research.
I moved to Singapore beginning of 2017 for this position after working several years as a consultant for the car industry in Munich, Germany. Before that, I was working at the Technical University of Munich as lecturer, researcher and doctoral candidate.
Tell us more about Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) in general?
An Autonomous Vehicle (AV) or driverless vehicle, is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment through a set of sensors (e.g., camera-based, RADAR, LIDAR) and moving safely with little or no human input.
The degree of automation relates to the involvement of humans for driving tasks. SAE International has defined several levels of automation from a level 1, meaning the human is driving and assistance can be provided for velocity and steering control, until level 5, called “full-automation”, where the vehicle does not need any human assistance whatever the situation.
At the moment, most of the OEMs are manufacturing cars at level 2. This is a partial automation level, where the human is monitoring the driving support features relating to steering, lane centering or adaptive cruise control. Level 3, called “conditional automation”, is the most critical level since humans are expected to take back the control of the car on request and this handover may take time depending on the complexity of the traffic situation, which induces safety issues.
It would be difficult to make a detailed review of all challenges linked with the development of AVs worldwide.
In a nutshell, while technological progress is made every day from the vehicle side in terms of sensing and behaving, many key aspects to adoption and success still need to be clarified, especially regarding the liability in case of accidents.
Furthermore, the variety of stakeholders involved (OEMs, but also cities, transportation planners, and new players like tech companies such as Google) makes the AV landscape complex.
A lot of pilots are tested in Singapore, why is it a key location for the development of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs)?
Singapore is largely investing into Research & Development activities linked with autonomous mobility. The city-state has been evaluated second worldwide in terms of readiness for AV deployment by KPMG (2019) after the Netherlands. The study looked at criteria like technology and innovation, infrastructure, consumer acceptance, as well as policy and legislation, in which Singapore is ranked ahead.
Among other initiatives, a Call for Collaboration have been launched by the Land Transport Authority and the Economic Development Board in 2019 for the pilot deployment of autonomous buses and shuttles in Singapore. The government also created CARTS, the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore, in order to provide leadership and guidance on the research, development and deployment of AV technology and AV-enabled mobility concepts for Singapore. One of the concrete outcomes that already came out is the Technical Reference 68, in which TUMCREATE participated in the Part 1 “Basic behaviour of AV” with other entities (among others 3M Singapore, HERE Technologies, nuTonomy, and ST Engineering). This TR is the first of its kind worldwide and provides guidelines relating to behaviours, safety, cybersecurity, and vehicular data types and formats.
What are the challenges of AVs used as public transport?
Even if worldwide media is covering OEMs for their increasingly automated products, the real potential for an improvement in the quality of life in cities can be reached if the technology is widely used in public transportation. This way, we can really hope for less congestion, more efficient traffic and thus shorter travel time.
The applications are broad from small shuttle buses that support the first & last miles (i.e., from home to the first public transport means), to large buses.
In Singapore, the government (mostly the Ministry of Transport and the Land Transport Authority) is encouraging shared mobility by enabling a dynamic environment for trials of shuttles and buses. Driverless shuttles have been tested during the past years on the campuses of NTU (by Navya) and NUS (by EasyMile), as well as on Sentosa (by Navya and ST Engineering).
The mobility concept of TUMCREATE is a 30-pax bus that can either operate like an MRT on designated lanes by driving in platoon or like minibuses in neighbourhoods that are usually not covered by public transport because of less travel demand.
Public transport has the specificity to deal with a wide range of users, who have diverse needs and expectations in terms of mobility. Penny Kong, also a woman in tech and PhD candidate in my team, created Mobility Personas for Singapore in order to understand and depict archetypes of Singaporean public transport users. We are always referring to the Mobility Personas while designing our mobility systems, which ensures that the developed concepts will foster acceptance of the entire system.
What does Design for Autonomous Mobility mean in this research program?
Within TUMCREATE, I developed two design approaches in the research program:
– One is technology-driven. We place technological systems in human context for evaluation (e.g., through usability testing in Virtual Reality or participatory workshops).
– The other is design-driven. Design concepts are evaluated through simulations, e.g., different internal vehicle layouts are tested with crowd simulation to calculate the time required for passenger boarding and alighting.
Our mindset is human-centred and our methodology is based on empirical studies. Among others, we organised participatory workshops with seniors in order to define with them how they would prefer to interact with the AV system once the bus driver is removed. We also conducted a citizens’ dialogue last year with SUTD (Assoc. Prof. Lynette Cheah) in order to understand the perception of the population towards driverless mobility and compare it with other cities all over the world (the study is coordinated by a French institute called Missions Publiques, more information here).
The results will be published soon but I can already tell you that Singapore has one of the most optimistic population towards AVs in comparison with the other cities!
How “Dare you” to be a woman in a Tech field like Autonomous Mobility?
The representation of women varies depending on the different expertise domain required for Autonomous Mobility. In TUMCREATE, teams are divided between mechanical engineers, traffic engineers, electrotechnical engineers, computer scientists and designers (my team).
Designing Autonomous Mobility involves social sciences in its process using methods directly inspired by psychology, sociology and anthropology. All these areas of expertise are already largely represented by women.
The barriers I have encountered so far come from the differing languages used by each discipline to describe a situation rather than gender related.
Otherwise, during my early career life, it was a matter of pride to show (to myself!) that I could survive in a masculine world like the car industry in Germany. I learned to be more assertive in the way I communicated, and these learnings were actually useful in every job I had, no matter with whom I interacted!
How do you bring more diversity?
Diversity is at the core of what my team is doing in terms of inclusion. The mobility systems that we are designing (vehicle and station) are meant to be suitable for a diversity of users, independently of their physical or cognitive abilities. This mindset is aligned with the Universal Design principles, which have been defined to ensure the usability of products and services by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design. We conducted workshops last year with wheelchair users and we are now planning a study with autistic children, which will give us new insights about the limitations that specific user groups may face while taking public transport.
Regarding the work environment, interestingly, we are the only team with more females than males! (3 to 2) So there is still a long road ahead.
In general, during the hiring process, I always keep an eye on having a balance within the team in terms of gender, but also nationality or academic background (if the tasks allow flexibility).
This leads to better exchange in the team, more creativity and more fun!